“Papillon”: A flawed but fascinating film with a tangled real-life history.

This article originally appeared on MovieRob’s blog, here.

I was invited to do this article by MovieRob for his Genre Grandeur series for March. The chosen theme this month was prison films. Thanks to Rob for the chance to participate!

Although it’s rather dated now, Papillon was a cultural sensation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story–widely publicized as true–of a French inmate of the infamous penal colony on Devil’s Island, Papillon began as a memoir written by Henri Charrière, a member of the Paris underworld who was imprisoned on Devil’s Island from 1933 to 1941. The book was a runaway best-seller when it first appeared in the spring of 1969. It was inevitable that it would attract the attention of a big-name Hollywood director. Franklin J. Schaffner, famous for the 1970 biopic Patton, brought the project to the screen after another success with a historically-themed picture, the underrated 1971 Nicholas and Alexandra.

The result was Papillon, a sprawling 1973 film that tested the boundaries of the traditional “prison film” by mixing it with a heavy dose of old-fashioned adventure. Charrière, nicknamed Papillon (“butterfly”) due to the tattoo on his chest, is played by action hero Steve McQueen. Sent to a brutal French prison camp in South America for a murder he insists he didn’t commit, Papillon teams up with meek, bespectacled counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), who helps him survive in the appalling prison conditions by smuggling him extra food while Papillon is in solitary confinement. Ultimately Papi and Dega mastermind a dangerous escape–a treacherous trek through the dense South American jungle, on which Dega elects not to come. After a series of adventures with indigenous tribes, bounty hunters and a leper colony, Papi is (spoiler alert) eventually recaptured and sent to the even more remote Devil’s Island. Ultimately he escapes on a raft made of coconuts. Floating out to sea, Papi shouts at the world, “I’m still here!”

As both an adventure and a prison film, Papillon has a lot of things going for it. Its depiction of life in the French penal system is brutal and horrifying–it’s astonishing that the film got a PG rating in 1973, despite beatings, throat-slashings and an on-screen execution. Schaffner generally avoids most of the prison movie clichés involving gangs or escape tunnels or the benevolent guard who takes pity on our heroes. Papillon is relentlessly brutal. The adventure sequences are like something out of a 1940s Republic serial, filled with jungle traps and hostile Indians, foreshadowing the type of classic adventure fare that was rebooted so successfully in the ’80s with Raiders of the Lost Ark. The ambitious production was obviously very difficult, with jungle locations filmed in Jamaica and Hawaii. Schaffner is a passable director but perhaps an even better logistician.

Yet, for all these advantages, Papillon doesn’t really work the way it should. For one thing the story doesn’t really hang together very coherently. It’s about Papillon’s iron will to escape, but the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot become tiresome after a surprisingly short period of the film’s 2 1/2 hour running time. The characters are well acted, but they’re not well-drawn or well-written. There’s no real chemistry between Hoffman and McQueen, a clash-of-the-titans pairing of 1970s blockbuster icons that should have, by itself, made for a fascinating movie. The characters are bland and undeveloped. Indeed the best characterization in the film is not by one of the big stars, but by character actor Anthony Zerbe, whose turn as the head of the leper colony is about the most memorable. Reviewing the picture in 1973, Roger Ebert remarked, “You know something has gone wrong when you want the hero to escape simply so that the movie can be over.”

As acting goes, Papillon is one of Steve McQueen’s better performances. It’s more of a shame, then, that his character never really connects with the audience.

Yet, Papillon is fascinating as a case study because its failure to work as a film isn’t really the film’s fault. It’s the source material that’s flawed, and it’s flawed in a number of interesting and telling ways. The characters aren’t drawn well because they’re mostly archetypes, not real personalities. Louis Dega was a real person, a sort of 1920s French Bernie Madoff who ripped off a lot of people with fraudulent bonds. So was André Maturette, a young murderer who accompanies Papi on his escape in the film. Neither character really works on his own terms. While Charrière undoubtedly knew them in prison, they sort of float through the story as human versions of the various trials, hazards and opportunities that one would expect to encounter in the bagne (the French term for the prison). Papillon, the book, which I read years ago, is essentially a grab-bag of features, stories and archetypes designed to present an overall look at what Devil’s Island and the French penal system was like. The adventure story of Charrière’s escape seemed almost tacked-on to that in order to provide the book with a coherent plot. The film, approaching its subject rather innocently, seems to swallow everything at face value.

In reality there’s serious question about the veracity of Charrière’s story. While he did serve in various prisons in France and South America, finally gaining his permanent freedom in 1945, the original French publisher of Papillon evidently admitted shortly before his death that the book was originally presented to him as a work of fiction. In 2005 another former French inmate, Charles Brunier, claimed that Papillon was based on his story, not Charrière’s life. Brunier in reality had the exact butterfly tattoo that McQueen sports in the film. Thus, Papillon, while not exactly fiction, isn’t exactly literal truth either. Charrière insisted that the movie was the literal truth of his life. He died in the summer of 1973 while the film was still in production.

Papillon’s final scene, involving a spectacular stunt. Note the obvious diver holding up McQueen’s raft at the end.

The things that don’t quite work about Papillon, the film, are probably outgrowths of the book’s tangled and uncertain history, and its questionable relationship to reality. The fact that it was “based on a true story” shackled (if you’ll pardon the expression) Schaffner and talented scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo to a certain version of the story, which might have been better told, and more compelling to an audience, if it was simply a work of fiction. Prison films are a tricky enough proposition to begin with: their protagonists are almost always innocent and wrongly convicted, and the audience is asked to sympathize with their burning desires to escape in order to validate the central goodness of their beings. Papillon, the movie, doesn’t invest enough effort in helping the audience sympathize with Charrière the man. He was much better off as a sort-of eyewitness chronicler of French prison life than as an action hero in his own right.

Papillon is an interesting film. It’s not a great one, or even particularly a good one, though it’s well-made (except for a few egregious lapses, like the obvious scuba diver holding up McQueen’s coconut raft under the water in the final scene). It’s perhaps best regarded as a cautionary tale about how, and how not, to bring supposedly “true stories” to the screen.

The header image includes the poster for Papillon which is presumably copyright (C) 1973 by Allied Artists. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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